It’s often hard for me to return home from California, a place of such obvious beauty, still so foreign to me. This past trip, I was obsessed with the smell of eucalyptus driving down Highway 1 and the surprisingly lulling sound of the fog horns on the Golden Gate Bridge. They blew almost every night of our trip, like some great sleeping monster snoring out in the Bay.
But Texas has rolled out the red carpet weather for us — the snapdragons have bloomed in my wife’s garden, and the trees in the front yard are “coming into leaf… like something almost being said.”
This is a diagram I copied out of Mitchel Resnick’s book, Lifelong Kindergarten. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how essential it is to stop thinking of our creative lives in terms of linear progress and think of them instead as cyclical, seasonal, and non-linear.
It’s an idea that’s been essential to my own practice, and one I’ve fiddled with in various visual representations. Here’s a page from Show Your Work!:
And here’s a blackout:
By now you might have noticed that the spiral is similar to the feedback loop of the Scientific Method or Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey.” What’s essential is that the spiral doesn’t have an end — it is a lifelong spiral.
This morning I watched a livestream of Resnick presenting in Reggio Emilia, the Italian birthplace of the famous educational approach. Resnick talked about how it was a visit to Reggio 20 years ago + a (fantastic) book by Norman Brosterman, Inventing Kindergarten, that brought him to the idea that the ways we learn in kindergarten should be “spread through a lifetime.” (I just got done reading The Art of Tinkering, a book from Resnick’s bibliography, which seems to me a catalog of artists who have retained a lifelong kindergarten-like sense of play.)
Thinking more and more about the spiral, I remembered a drawing I drew for someone who asked me a question about how I balanced creating and consuming:
Another endless learning spiral…
Still — always? — thinking about seasons.
“Cabinet of Curiosity” is the (perfect) title for Jeffrey Jenkins’ introduction to the visual compendium of David Sedaris’s diaries: It alludes to the history of the “wunderkammer,” of course (I have a whole chapter devoted to the subject in Show Your Work!), but also, literally, to the cabinet in Sedaris’s London home where he keeps his diaries, his lifelong record of his curiosity. (Complete with momento mori!)
In yesterday’s post on Sedaris’s diary habit, I mentioned that Sedaris averages around 4 volumes a year, but what I didn’t know then is that he usually binds these volumes by season. Jenkins grew up a close friend of the Sedaris family, and writes:
The Sedarises were as attuned to the change of the seasons as anyone I’ve known… I think this attention to the seasons helps explain David’s devotion to finishing one diary and beginning another in conjunction with the year’s solstices and equinoxes. While we’re adjusting our clocks forward or backward, he’s picking out a new diary cover.
I was particularly pleased to discover that the Sedarises celebrated October 1 as an official holiday — I wrote my piece about thinking in terms of “season time” on October 2 this year.
Since for the past year I have been thinking about seasons, seasonal time, moon phases, etc., here’s Chang Ch’ao from the 17th century, writing in his book, Sweet Dream Shadows, about what you should read during each season, translated by Lin Yutang, in his book, The Importance of Living:
One should read the classics in winter, because then one’s mind is more concentrated; read history in the summer, because one has more time; read the ancient philosophers in autumn, because they have such charming ideas; and read the collected works of later authors in spring, because then Nature is coming back to life.
As a bonus, here’s Ch’ao on what you should do on a rainy day, depending on the season: “A rainy day in spring is suitable for reading; a rainy day in summer is suitable for playing chess, a rainy day in autumn is suitable for going over things in the trunks or in the attic; and a rainy day in winter is suitable for drinking.”
Last August I wrote about my belief in creative seasons, and after I read Matt Thomas’s great post about trying to live with the seasons, I doodled this little chart in my notebook, trying to map some of the markers of “clock time” to organic things that happen in nature, wondering if I could learn something by paying attention to them. Right away, you can see that the week is manmade, and therefore, so is the week-end, and with it, the “Sunday Blues” and other neuroses, which Witold Rybczynski writes about so well in Waiting For The Weekend.
Other bits of clock time map approximately to nature’s doings. I find that the moon phases, for example, are much more interesting than months when tracking my own creative time. (Yes, I’ve become the kind of person who can guess what phase of the moon it is just by how shitty I feel.)
Still, the months are different characters that do different things for me, and it’s now October, my favorite month, and it feels a lot like how Henry David Thoreau described it, in a journal entry, dated November 14, 1853:
October is the month of painted leaves, of ripe leaves, when all the earth, not merely flowers, but fruits and leaves, are ripe. With respect to its colors and its season, it is the sunset month of the year, when the earth is painted like the sunset sky. This rich glow flashes round the world. This light fades into the clear, white, leafless twilight of November, and whatever more glowing sunset or Indian summer we have then is the afterglow of the year. In October the man is ripe even to his stalk and leaves; he is pervaded by his genius, when all the forest is a universal harvest, whether he possesses the enduring color of the pines, which it takes two years to ripen and wither, or the brilliant color of the deciduous trees, which fade the first fall.
I’m reminded of a sign you see in craft stores in Texas: “Happy fall, y’all.”
After being a nun in Los Angeles for 30 years, Corita Kent moved to Boston to live quietly and make art. Her apartment had a big bay window with a maple tree out front, and she liked to sit there and observe the tree changing throughout the seasons. (Something much harder to do in Los Angeles, or here in Austin, Texas, where we have two seasons: hot and hotter.)
“That tree was the great teacher of the last two decades of her life,” her former student Mickey Myers said. “She learned from that tree. The beauty it produced in spring was only because of what it went through during the winter, and sometimes the harshest winters yielded the most glorious springs.”
An interviewer came to visit Corita and asked her what she’d been up to. “Well… watching that maple tree grow outside,” she said. “I’ve never had time to watch a tree before.”
I moved to this place in October and the tree was in full leaf then. I watched it lose its leaves. I watched it covered with snow. Then these little green flowers came out and it didn’t look like a maple tree at all. Finally the leaves were recognizable as maple leaves and that in a way is very much how I feel about my life. It seems a great new stage for me – whether it will ever be recognizable by anyone else I don’t know, but I feel that great new things are happening very quietly inside of me. And I know these things have a way, like the maple tree, of finally bursting out in some form.
For Corita, the tree came to represent creativity. In winter, she said, “the tree looks dead, but we know it is beginning a very deep creative process, out of which will come spring and summer.”
Creative work has seasons. Part of the work is to know which season it is, and act accordingly.
People occasionally wonder out loud when I’m going to write another book. “I don’t know,” I say. They ask me what I’ve been up to lately. “Not much,” I say. “Reading a bunch. Raising the boys.”
To an outsider, it sounds like I’m doing nothing. It looks like I’m doing nothing. But I feel very much like Corita: “new things are happening very quietly inside of me.”
It may be the hottest day of summer, but it’s winter in my world. There are processes at work that you can’t see.
Things waiting to burst forth.